Sowing the seeds of gardening-based change at Masdar City

The director of Masdar City explains the project’s sustainable landscaping and planting schemes.

A rendering of Masdar City, which is continuing its eco-friendly aims with the clever use of spatial planning and indigenous plants. Courtesy Masdar
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The design for Masdar City in Abu Dhabi by ­Foster + Partners has gone through a series of evolutions since construction of the project began in 2006. Not least of these was the decision to introduce cars to the project's plan, to facilitate better connectivity and enhance the city's economic viability. It's this theme of connectedness, both to the environment and to people, that has played a key part in shaping both the public spaces and the landscape architecture of the city.

Anthony Mallows, the director of Masdar City, explains how their approach has been fundamentally different to standard city planning. “Traditional city building would start off by saying that ‘buildings look like this and they are like that’, but by working in this way, the public realm and its landscape architecture has this environmental intention. Therefore the buildings have to support the public realm, and so the planning process is inverted,” he says.

Plans for the landscaping have been about responding to Estidama, the sustainability initiative developed by the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, which was conceived to “imbue a new mindset that promotes the concept of living in harmony with our culture and environment”, and working towards its Four Pearl Community Rating. A key facet of this is achieving higher levels of sustainable design and practice, by adhering to these principles right from the very beginning of the design and build process.

Masdar masterplanning also references the green building certification system Leed, although there are elements of the current international system that don’t take into account the special conditions and concerns that are associated with the high temperatures endemic to the Middle East.

There’s a “budget” for water at Masdar City, which means that to work within its stipulated allocation, innovative decisions and strategies have to be deployed when it comes to how water is used. It’s not about sucking more water out of the ground, but about how it can be effectively deployed to maximise its impact. Sourcing and recycling water from district cooling systems is one such approach, as is finding ways to cool and irrigate the city using natural means. Much of the landscape architecture and planting is centred around this fundamental objective.

There are linear parks (corridors of open space running across the city grid), which are a way of incorporating prevailing winds into the fabric of the city, creating a micro climate response to reduce humidity. “Outdoor thermal comfort may be a simple term, but it’s complex in terms of what it means,” says Mallows. “How comfortable do people feel, based on the environmental conditions they are in? In the Middle East, this becomes especially important in summer. There are lots of passive responses that can be made to cooling, such as putting buildings closer together so that you have more shade, or orientating buildings so that prevailing winds will come through and provide cooling effects.

“Also, adding very strategic water elements to stimulate visual and auditory responses can create a sense of ‘coolness’, as can providing natural green elements with low reflectivity, so that the ambient heat exchange is minimised. All of these play an important part in the outdoor thermal comfort.”

A holistic approach to building design is focused on keeping the city as cool as possible. “That kind of thinking is, I think, what the mission of Masdar was all about, and where there is true integration between the public realm and the architecture, then the architecture just gets better with it.”

The sub-developers at the city are also obligated to incorporate this thinking into their own designs. Their additions must connect to the public spaces by incorporating open, shaded areas, which serve to expand and integrate the sense of cool space at street level. Obviously, when a building is finished, it doesn’t move, yet a boulevard or a park continues to grow and evolve with time, which forms part of the plan for the longer term.

“Walking along the street, or riding your bike, you gain a sense of sequence between the buildings and the landscape. You start to make landscape and buildings have a dialogue, which creates a far more interesting environment,” Mallows explains.

Peter Spellmeyer, the landscape manager at Masdar City, adds: “There are both benefits and constraints to creating a balance in the landscape between natural green shade and architectural shade. Our goal is to shift the balance towards native and drought-tolerant plants, to provide shade in places such as plazas and walkways, which is a very apparent category of Estidama.”

Has it been a challenge to deploy indigenous or native plants in their designs, given that the aesthetic of some of these plants isn’t necessarily what people are used to seeing in urban landscaping? Spellmeyer strongly believes that native plants can be as, or even more, beautiful as the foreign species often used in landscaped communities. It’s just a different aesthetic, representing a shift to environmental and sustainability concerns. It is about creating an aesthetic that is just as pleasant and attractive to the eye as other planting schemes across the city, but is simultaneously sensitive to the environment.

“When you look at native plant material, its aesthetic, textures and colours are just as varied; they are just as pretty,” Spellmeyer says. “There is also a lot of native material here that people haven’t really seen, because it is in an environment that people may not often get to, or it hasn’t been highlighted as plant material in an environment where they can look, touch and feel it, and really get a sense of it.”

In the same way, the Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx went out into local landscapes and collected and propagated the plant species he found there. He brought those plants back to Brazil’s cities and was hailed for the beautiful materials he was using, which people just hadn’t really been aware of until that point.

“Every plant in our nursery is 100 per cent native to this site. So they have had the opportunity to acclimatise and grow here, and they will survive here,” Spellmeyer explains. Arguably, the whole site is a nursery, because there are greenbelt roadways and other areas currently being used as incubators for landscaping elements, allowing them to mature before they are eventually deployed elsewhere in the city as building phases are completed.

“We don’t want to engage the public realm with tiny plant specimens; we need to plan for them to be of a size that will create the look and feel that we are trying to achieve,” Spellmeyer says. This is an especially important consideration for native plants – in the past, there hasn’t been much call for their use in urban planting schemes, which meant that few were grown.

Masdar is also engaging with local nurseries to ensure that there will be sufficient supply moving forward. As the call for their use deepens, it’s hoped that there will be more interest in these species and a greater desire to use them in local landscape ­architecture.

Mallows concludes: “I am hoping that just as we’ve done with the buildings here, that there will also be some awareness as to what is an appropriate landscape regime in this environment, through the experience of engaging with nature for really beautifully designed public spaces. Not only because there is some obvious social imperative, but because also, ultimately, it will prove to be more cost-­effective.”

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